Survival Skills: Conquering Sleep Deprivation During Emergency Situations

Getting a restful night’s sleep is hard enough today, but in a survival situation it could be even more difficult. Not getting sufficient rest is actually much more serious than we tend to realize: going without sleep for as little as 20 hours can cause impairment equal to an alcohol level of .08%! You certainly wouldn’t want to walk a patrol or chop wood with that much alcohol in your system, but in an emergency you will be tempted to work under similar levels of “sleep inebriation”. It is key to learn how to sleep properly and to understand exactly what benefits sleep brings to your body.

Why sleep is so important to a survivor

Sleep is one thing that can’t really be “stockpiled” like food or water, so it requires constant daily attention in order to properly fill your body’s needs. Furthermore, a lack of sleep can rapidly bring on many symptoms that progress from mild annoyances all the way to life-threatening conditions such as:

  • Headaches
  • Irritability
  • Memory loss (particularly short-term memory)
  • Increased stress levels (both from lack of sleep and from compounding effects of other symptoms)
  • Shaky hands
  • Reduced immune system effectiveness
  • Blacking out (AKA “The body says you will sleep now”)
  • Loss of fine motor control
  • Hallucinations
  • Loss of sense of time and/or place
  • Bloodshot, itchy and achy eyes
  • General physical exhaustion because muscles aren’t permitted to relax properly
  • Increased blood pressure

Death from simple lack of sleep is possible, but it is usually additional circumstances (heart attack from stress, crashing vehicles, hitting your head when you blackout) that causes the most severe damage.

You might think that the main reason would be because you’re so busy, and in some cases you may be right. However, even in winter emergencies and other situations where there is a lot of sitting around and doing very little sleep can still be hard to come by. Stress and fear will be the main thing that keeps you up at night, since you and your group will have gone from the peace of modern life to the frightening and hostile world of a severe emergency. Beyond that, changes in diet, habits, and general living will also throw your inner clock into a tailspin immediately following the onset of a disaster. The mind and body dislike change, and a survival situation brings massive amounts of change very rapidly which overloads your brain even when it really needs to rest.

How to sleep peacefully during an emergency

The key to sleeping peacefully is to reduce stress and diminish the effects of the mental overload your brain is going through. The best way to do this is to establish a simple pre-sleep plan that gives some order and control over your environment. For example washing off the day’s sweat, grabbing a warm cup of milk, some juice or even hot water and settling in to read a book about 20 minutes before you actually need to sleep can act as a helpful trigger point for your mind to start sending out signals to your body that it is time to sleep. If possible, trying to do this at a set time each day will also be helpful, since your body can then begin to automatically make you slightly drowsy so that you’ll be good and tired by the time you truly need to sleep.
Here are some other helpful ideas to help you sleep:

  • Sleeping medications. Obviously these are only to be used if they must since you don’t want to be groggy if a sudden nighttime emergency erupts, but if you simply cannot sleep these may be needed. Use the lightest possible dosage whenever possible.
  • Put yourself in the safest place possible, mentally speaking. A child hiding under the covers feels safer from the “monsters under the bed” because his mind sees the blanket as a shield that hides him from prying eyes, and there are tricks that work on adults for a similar effect. Choose rooms with doors that can be locked, or place yourself so that you can see the person standing watch over the rest of the group. If you’re outside, try to create an elevated sleeping area to avoid getting a centipede or other crawly latching onto you.
  • Make sure you’re properly warm or cold, depending on the season. Your brain does a little extra work when it has to sweat or shiver to keep you warm, and being uncomfortable obviously makes it difficult to sleep!
  • Read a book or write in a journal before sleeping. These activities burn some of that excess mental energy, and they also tend to focus your imagination on something constructive rather than randomly wondering about dangers in the night.
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and tobacco before sleeping. All of these tend to cause harm to your sleep cycle, so even if you’re able to get to sleep initially it won’t be as restful so you won’t get the full benefit.
  • Don’t eat for at least an hour before you sleep. You want your body to rest while sleeping, not digest food. Obviously you need to eat when you can in an emergency to stave off hunger pangs, but a recently filled belly can also contribute to staying awake.
  • Routine, routine, routine. Give your brain a small portion of your day that is 100% under your control that it can run nearly on autopilot. Set a time, set a small series of actions to complete before bed, and then hit the sack.

Sleep deprivation is a terrible thing and it can mess with your head in a way few other problems will. Make sure you get your proper rest so that you’ll be ready to survive whatever the morning brings.

Josh @ PFT

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